It’s been just 150 years since the publication of “On the Origin of Species,” in which Charles Darwin outlined his argument that all life forms descended from a common ancestor.
That is scarcely an eyeblink in the epic context of evolutionary time, so perhaps we ought not to get too bent out of shape over a Gallup Poll suggesting that less than half of American adults are willing to acknowledge Darwin was on to something.
In fact, data gathered on the bicentennial celebration of Darwin’s birthday and reposted this week show that just 39 percent of those surveyed in a 2009 random sample of 1,018 respondents say they “believe in the theory of evolution,” while 25 percent reject Darwin’s argument outright.
Another 36 percent, or nearly all the rest of those surveyed, said they had no opinion either way, which strikes us as a little like having no opinion whether the law of gravity has merit. But we’re cheered by the possibility that this noncommittal third of the country is keeping an open mind, at least for the time being.
Americans’ continuing reluctance to embrace Darwin’s argument is slightly more alarming when you consider that virtually everything biologists have discovered since either confirms or refines his theory of natural selection.
Indeed, the more education those polled in the Gallup survey reported, the more likely they were to subscribe to Darwin’s theory. While just 24 percent of those who had completed high school or less said they believed in the theory, the percentage of believers doubled to 53 among college graduates and 74 among postgraduate degree-holders.
The opposite correlation was observed among those who attended church regularly; just 24 percent of those who attended weekly said they believed in evolution, compared with 55 percent of those who said they attended church seldom or never. Gallup said its previous research shows that church attendance rates are fairly constant across educational groups, suggesting that differences in attitudes toward evolution were a direct reflection of respondents’ religious beliefs.
What is most worrisome, to those of us who struggle in the even more amorphous realm of public policy, is the absence of consensus about the validity of basic scientific method — the process of testing hypotheses about how the world works against repeated and disciplined observations of the world.
How can Americans find common ground on the subject of, say, global warming if most of us remain suspicious about a scientific consensus that has endured more than a century longer?
The good news, according to Darwin, is that nature favors adaptations that enhance a species’ survival. So, assuming observation continues to bear out his theory of evolution, not only is our species’ eyesight improving, but also its capacity to acknowledge what our eyes see.